Estimated reading time: 8 minute(s)
I build and play guitars for a living. This has given me the opportunity to get to know many fellow guitar aficionados from around the world. Guitarists, always looking to fine-tune our craft and treat our instruments well, are readily sucked into buying and trying a variety of expensive gadgets, gizmos, and upgrades. Even when we find something that we like, we always look for new equipment. Although I usually use D’Addario Nickel Bronze guitar strings, I decided to venture out and try three different brands of boutique guitar strings that I had never used before. Below, I will offer my review of the three brands of boutique guitar strings. Along the way, I will also talk a bit about the three interesting guitars that I tested them on.
Please note that this is not an affiliate article. I included the links to the manufacturer websites from which you can read more about the strings and purchase them for reference only. I do not receive any commission if you choose to purchase any of these strings.
The Three Boutique Guitar Strings Under Review
In this post, I will review the following three boutique guitar strings:
- Low Parabolic Tension Strings (Santa Cruz Guitar Company) – Tested on: 2016 Wide Sky PL1 / Nick Lucas copy
- 24K Gold Round Wound Strings, .010 – .047 gauge (Optima Strings) – Tested on: 1920 Gibson L-Jr
- Plectrum Guitar Strings, 0.011 – 0.050 gauge (Thomastic-Infeld Vienna) – Tested on: 1966 Martin 0-18
What Do I Look For in Guitar Strings?
I am an avid collector of vintage guitars. For this reason, I tend to look for light gauge guitar strings. Using heavy gauge strings on old guitars can cause structural problems for both the body and neck. Since I tend to use light strings to protect my guitars, I am most accustomed to playing them as well.
Some of my older guitars have fragile tailpieces. This makes the process of changing strings on them nerve-wracking. For this reason, I also look for strings that last a long time so as to limit my having to expose my guitars to danger more often than absolutely necessary.
I am also not very concerned with the volume of strings. Firstly, all of my gigging guitars are amplified for stage. Secondly, they are generally parlor-sized to Marin “0” sized – meaning they do not have the kind of volume that one will find in a larger jumbo or dreadnought-style instrument. I am not much of a lead guitarist or instrumentalist – my goal on stage is to accompany myself or my band as a rhythm guitar player. Accordingly, I spend most of my time strumming or flat-picking in either standard tuning or open D tuning.
With my cards all out on the table, you can consider my preferences and experiences in making sense of my three string reviews.
Review: Santa Cruz Guitar Company’s Low Parabolic Tension Strings
I had been intrigued by these strings from the Santa Cruz Guitar Company for a while and was excited to finally try them. The strings were hard to obtain since stock has been limited during the pandemic.
The Santa Cruz Guitar Company takes the position that the gauge of the strings is not important. Instead, “low string tension” is the factor, and they emphasize the “core-to-wrap ratio” of their strings as perfecting this system. Santa Cruz touts its strings as being powerful but easy on both hands and guitars.
These strings were thicker than the strings I normally use. For that reason, I tried them on my Wide Sky Nick Lucas copy, which is the youngest guitar in my collection. It was made by Patch Rubin in 2016, to a combination of his PL-1 model specs and the original vintage Gibson Nick Lucas specs. Unlike the traditional Nick Lucas, however, this guitar has a cedar top, made from wood that was reclaimed from a sunken log. The cedar makes it quieter than my other guitars, which have spruce tops.
I had never found a set of strings that suited my Wide Sky well. But when I tried the Santa Cruz Guitar Company’s low parabolic tension strings, I noticed an immediate difference. The guitar sounded brighter, more vibrant, and louder than it did before. There was a sense of sonic balance between the strings. I have found that with some other brands, the higher and lower strings stand out more.
I did notice the difference in gauge between these strings and the lighter gauge strings I typically use. They are indeed physically thicker. However, I found that they are easier to push down than regular strings of comparable size.
Santa Cruz Guitar Company recommends their lower tension strings for small guitars like the ones I use and mid-tension strings for larger guitars. The strings I tested retail at $18.
Review: Optima 24 Carat Gold Round Wound Strings
I could not pass on trying these strings after I saw them. They are 24 carat gold! Well, to be precise, they are 24 carat gold-plated. Close enough.
Optima boasts that these strings are “completely insensitive to tarnishing or corrosion.” I found this to be a compelling sale pitch. Optima also advertises the strings as having a “brilliant sound.”
I purchased the strings to try on my 1920 Gibson L-Jr. This guitar still has its original tailpiece. While the original is interesting, it is not the most practical design. Made before the standard arch top tailpiece, Gibson thought it prudent to slap a piece of plastic on the end of two strips of metal, and set traditional acoustic pinks to it. Most of these early tailpieces do not last because the plastic corrodes or breaks. My 1920 Gibson L-Jr and my prized 1917 Gibson L-1 are lucky, however, for the original plastic survives on both to this day.
While I am glad that both of my century-old guitars still have their original tailpieces, they are very difficult to re-string. Furthermore, the Gibson L-Jr is not only a cheaper guitar than the Gibson L-1, but it has also experienced significant repairs. As a result, my Gibson L-Jr has a quieter, almost deadlier sound, than its 1917 counterpart. While that has its charm, there is no doubt that the Gibson L-1 is the superior instrument.
The Optima gold strings gave my Gibson L-Jr an immediate brightness, so much so that they helped close the gap in quality between it and the Gibson L-1 (although not entirely.) There was an increased brilliance and jangle in the sound of the Gibson L-Jr, a sort of undefinable difference, when compared with the strings I had used on it previously. I attribute some of the difference to the difference in the string material.
The lack of coating on the strings is noticeable. This will take getting used to if you prefer slick strings.
The Optima 24 Carat Gold Round Wound Strings decisively improved the sound of my Gibson L-1. But I must caution that my Gibson L-1 is not the most complex-sounding instrument. For that reason, I would have to test them on a different instrument to have a better idea about further sonic differences in the sound of these strings compared to other strings I have used.
These strings are pricey, retailing at $30. Some players might laugh at me for buying them, but to that I must note again that they are gold. I am having a blast with the strings. One final note – because they are gold, they should merit strong consideration from guitarists with nickel allergies.
Review: Thomastik-Infeld Pectrum Guitar Strings
I decided to try the Thomastik-Infeld Plectrum Guitar Strings on my 1966 Martin 0-18. This guitar received a comprehensive restoration a couple of years ago, complete with a “new” top. After I stumbled on the broken project guitar, I found a never-before used factory top from the very same model guitar on sale on eBay – a story that I look forward to recounting in a future article.
I took the guitar along with the top to Retrofret in Brooklyn for rebuilding. Thus, while it is a vintage guitar, it is in many was new as well. As a result, it has a brighter, less deep sound, than an typical vintage Martin 0-18.
My Martin 0-18 is the most traditional flat top acoustic out of the three guitars I used for my tests. Based on my reading, I thought that this would be the best place for the plectrum strings.
Thomastik-Infeld advertises the strings as being very easy to play both for their low tension and silk inlays in the strings. They also state that these qualities serve to reduce “string noise” – the sound of the guitarist’s skin rubbing against the strings – creating an almost classical or jazz tone.
When I first started playing my Martin 0-18 with the Thomastic-Infeld Plectrum Guitar Strings, I did not immediately hear the kind of difference that I heard with the Santa Cruz strings. However, after a short time, I began to hear the nuance that these strings offer.
My Martin 0-18 is a small-body guitar, meaning that it does not have the widest low end. However, these strings added a depth and complexity of sound that is very palpable, although not immediately striking. The strings are quiet when sliding from note to note. I slowly realized I was having trouble putting the guitar down.
I found the strings easy to play, and easier to play than the Santa Cruz strings – although some of the difference might be attributable to the differences in the guitars.
Overall, these strings offered an interested and understated sound. I think they are worth a look for guitarists who like darker strings and bass.
The Thomastic-Infeld Plectrum Guitar Strings run at $30 a pack, making them another relatively expensive choice.
Final Thoughts on the Boutique Guitar Strings
I enjoyed testing and reviewing these three boutique guitar strings. Since I tested each of the strings on specific guitars, my goal is not to rank them, but rather to offer some thoughts on how they sounded in a particular context. The Santa Cruz strings possess a loud brilliance and are easy to play. The Optima strings produce a complex brightness. The Thomastik-Infeld strings betray a complex bass and death. They are all high quality strings, and depending on your needs, you may find that one of them provides the kind of sounds and qualities that you are looking for. I offered information about my background and guitars so that fellow guitarists could put my reviews in context and determine whether one of the three strings might benefit their instruments.
If I was forced to choose between the three, or only have the option of buying one set again, I think it would be the Thomastik-Infeld strings. But as with all things, it takes time to tell which one works best for a specific purpose.
Although the strings I reviewed are a bit pricey, I think that the most important thing to look for – besides ensuring that the strings suit the guitar in question – is whether the strings you buy will make you want to play your guitar more. To be sure, guitars that go unused produce no sound at all. If more expensive strings make you play more or try a new sound, then they are worth every penny.